How the udder half lives
Student teams are the managers at the University Farm
The four college students who work at the dairy unit of the Chico State University farm are not your average animal science students who sit in a classroom and listen to a professor’s lecture. They are experiencing the reality of working on a farm first-hand.
Sadie Madlem, Sarah Rundle, Amy Nester and Carrie Henke form the core of the students who get down and dirty on the farm. They are in charge of the unit, along with their animal science faculty adviser, Clay Carlson, and their unit manager, Gerald Darling.
The students are responsible for taking care of 114 cows. They have to be at the farm as early as 4 a.m. to begin their duties. The students in that shift milk the “first string” of cows: 42 of the 114 animals. The milk is stored in a large metal tank in a small, muggy room and is picked up every other day. Sale of the milk helps the farm break even financially.
The maternity pen houses the cows that are getting ready to calve. The cows go into the pen 21 days before they calve and then go to the “hospital.” During our visit, a newborn calf stood, wide-eyed, at one side of the pen. Giving birth can be hard for a first-time mother cow; she may get scared and “stress.” Nester recently had a situation in which she had to assist a cow that was stressing.
“I helped pull it,” Nester says. “I didn’t have to put my arm up in there; sometimes you have to put your arm in there and turn it and pull it, like when doctors help with babies if there are problems.”
“We really have to watch them when they calve; if they have problems calving, we have to go in and help them out,” Madlem says. “Once [the calves are] on the ground, we basically just check them over and make sure they’re all right and then we tag them.”
The tags are pierced through the cow’s ear. Each tag has a number on it that is used for identification purposes.
These students are certainly no strangers to dealing with animals and the inner workings of a farm. Madlem, the green-fingernail-polished spokesperson and unofficial leader of the dairy unit group, is a senior agricultural-science major at Chico State with a focus in teaching. She grew up in Ukiah and participated in rodeos and showed horses in high school as well as raising lambs and pigs.
Rundle, a senior majoring in animal science who recently left Chico for a semester in Costa Rica, had horses and raised beef cows and hogs while she was growing up in Sonora and was a member of the Future Farmers of America and 4-H. The dairy experience is a new one for her. With her trendy nose piercing and multiple earrings, Rundle at first glance seems slightly out of place walking around on the farm.
“I’ve always been into animals,” she explains. “I was pre-med at first, but animals are definitely my thing. I changed and came up here, and I love it.”
Henke is tall and has bright-blue eyes that seem to jump out of her face. She is quiet but well spoken as she talks about her farming experiences. Henke is a senior animal science major and has a background with horses and also with plant science. She grew up in Galt, near Stockton, and was a member of the FFA for one semester in high school and is thinking about pursuing a career in nutrition or reproduction.
Nester is athletic looking and wears a visor. Also a senior at Chico State, she is an agricultural-business major and raised swine and sheep and beef cows growing up in Colfax and also lived in Carmel Valley. With her agricultural business background she handles the finances at the dairy unit.
“My family had short-horned cows, but it’s nothing compared to what we do here,” Nester says.
The other units at the farm, which include the beef, sheep and swine units as well as the meats lab, are all set up with the management team concept. The four students are involved with all aspects of livestock production disciplines, such as health, reproduction and nutrition, on a daily basis.
Carlson, a 6-foot, 5-inch ex-basketball player, is now a lecturer at Chico State. As he talks about his students, they joke back and forth with him.
Carlson stresses the importance of the student management team and its benefit for the students. “I try to advise them and to make it as educational and student-centered as possible,” he says.
The students and Darling recently coordinated a field trip to Williams for a daylong dairy seminar and also visited two dairies in Orland, where they met with the managers and took a tour. “We try to prepare them for life beyond academia,” Carlson says.
The students recently did projects in which they researched the dairy unit. They were given all of the records of the unit, and each did a report on a different discipline, with Madlem evaluating the nutritional program, Rundle doing the environmental-stress or “cow comfort” aspect, Henke tackling the reproduction and Nester doing an economical analysis.
Usually there are two people working at the unit at a time. When problems occur, such as difficulty bringing the cows in, they call each other first and then call Darling or Carlson for extra help.
Two days after birth the calves are moved to the huts, which are small, cage-like structures. The calves stay in the huts for a couple of months, depending on their size, whether they are able to compete for food and how healthy they are.
From the huts the calves go to the raised deck, which sits above the ground, where they stay for two months, until ready to be halter-broken and weaned. The calves are halter-broken in the “weaner” barn, where they stay until they are ready to be turned out into the junior pens. Magnets are put in their stomachs, which prevent metal from going through their systems. If swallowed, a piece of wire or a nail could get into the cow’s stomach and burrow a hole or cause infections in their intestines, so the magnets grab the metal and keep it in one place. The calves also get two sets of vaccinations.
From here the calves go to the small junior pens at 6 to 10 months and then to the junior pen at the pastures, which are on the other side of the farm. They stay at the junior pen until they’re about 14 or 15 months old, and then it’s off to the breeding pens. There are currently 18 pregnant cows on the pastures.
Some of the duties that the students are responsible for are the milking, feeding and mating. Carlson takes care of the breeding.
The university farm is quite high tech, with all of the information about the cows entered into a computer program. When the cow is ready to breed, the students enter all of the data. Each cow has her own file, including how much milk she produced, when she calved, what she is strong and weak in, and so on. Based on her strengths and weaknesses, the students can determine which bull to breed her with so that a better calf can be produced.
The cows are cleaned before being milked in the washroom. They stand in a small metal slat, and their udders are rinsed off. From there they go to the parlor, which is a narrow room where the milking takes place. Suction cups are attached to the cows’ udders, and six cows are milked at a time. The milk flows through a tube and into the “bulk” tank. The students know every day, twice a day, how much milk is produced.
“We’re trying to turn them into managers instead of laborers,” Carlson explains.
The students have weekly meetings in which they try to think up new ideas and to improve what goes on at the farm.
As the four students stand in the parlor and Carlson sits on his stool, he swells with pride and respect for his students. Their love for their work is clear as well.
“I love working here; we all do," Madlem says.